IN ALL THE odd pageantry of human appearance, one thing you don't often see is a man who resembles a rhinoceros. I've met but one; he sat next to me in trigonometry. He had a warted, horny nose, black beady eyes with a certain Garfield-the-cat bulge, and dark, leathery-looking skin. He was a powerfully rotund youth, a sousaphone player, and the center on the varsity football squad, in which capacity he regularly had cause to lower his head and ram into his fellow quadrupeds. And while he knew sine from cosine, on the outside he was as much rhinoceros as man. His name was Stephen Ionesco.
At 17, the concordance of Ionesco the sousaphonist and phenotypic rhinoceros with Eugene Ionesco, the author of the play Rhinoceros, struck me as nothing less than epiphanous. This, I believed, was the sound of the deity slapping snares, then hitting a rim shot. Yet for the French absurdist, such a manifestation of divine whimsy might only have confirmed a belief in the degraded value of language. In The Bald Soprano, appealingly staged here by Chopping Block Theater Group, Ionesco presents nonsensical fragments copied from an English phrase book. The formula behind this anti-play, according to its writer, involved little more than "putting the most banal sentences, one after the other." As if to punctuate his point, at play's end the characters reveal the intriguing title itself to be gibberish. And while Ionesco once argued that "everything is permitted in the theater" (thus mimicking Nietzsche's best bumper sticker slogan), he could rely on one reassuring constant--theater tickets are not refundable.
One thing not permitted during The Bald Soprano is any semblance of significant action or dialogue. The usually staid Benèt's Reader's Encyclopedia offers this irresistibly pithy condensation of the play: "Characters without identity repeat empty gestures and banal commonplaces in a mock-serious, tragi-comic parody of existence." On a mostly bare stage, six actors speak for 60 minutes. Two purport to be Mr. and Mrs. Smith; another pair, Mr. and Mrs. Martin; with a maid and a fire chief filling out the sextet. But they are characters in name alone, having no recognizable traits or personal consistency. Mrs. Smith compares frying oils. The fire chief looks for a fire. The door knocks but no one is there. The actors speak in flawed if-then statements and ceaseless tautologies like a formal logician gone loony. The clock strikes 3; it strikes 9; it strikes 17.
As briskly directed by Ben Kernan and comically acted by a collection of young unknowns, the performers veer wildly between behavioral extremes, over-articulating like automatons, then turning edgy and hysterical. Mr. and Mrs. Martin relate their living conditions to each other for five minutes, remarking on the fabulous "coincidences" of their accounts before ever realizing they are husband and wife. And while this alienation from true communication seems to fulfill Ionesco's intentions, by his account, The Bald Soprano's ambitions would be even more extreme, involving "the disarticulation of the characters themselves." "The ideal," he continues in Collection Littéraire, Lagarde et Michard: XXe Siècle, "would be to see their heads and their limbs projected on the stage. Unfortunately this is impossible. It would nevertheless be beautiful, to have no more than dismembered marionettes--characters having no reality. That is, in a certain way, what this play would like to be."
Samuel Beckett would proceed to do just that a decade later in plays like Endgame and Happy Days. But Ionesco's first play, The Bald Soprano, owes as much to Alfred Jarry, that turn-of-the-century profaner and grand guignol theater, as to Ionesco's innovative and melancholic contemporaries. Where Jarry--whose Ubu Roi initiated opening-night riots--attacked the sanctity of theater and sexual decency, Ionesco's dramatic transgressions involved deeper structures of psychology and language. In this play, then, he perhaps wasn't above paying tribute to master Jarry with the line "caca, caca, caca," but his aspirations lay in locating a shared collection of "dreams and desires, anguish and obsessions... [from] a very ancient deposit to which all mankind may lay claim."
Whether the Chopping Block Theater Group--as a representative of a proliferation of young, like-minded, and reasonably talented companies--is willing to embrace that heritage remains to be seen. While Chopping Block capitalize on The Bald Soprano's comedy (a surprisingly large crowd at the Bryant-Lake Bowl both laughed and drank generously), nothing would have offended the playwright more than the idea of a theater of diversion. And although Ionesco might have similarly resisted ideology as superficial, I am increasingly convinced that it is one of few tools left that can jar an audience. The human condition is one of isolation and misery, these attractive actors say instead, and aren't we having fun? CP
The Bald Soprano runs through July 27 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater; call 825-8949.